WASHINGTON – When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, one of the most memorable initiatives that accompanied his campaign was “The Great Schlep” – an effort by Jewish millennials to convince their grandparents to vote for a candidate with the middle name “Hussein.”
The idea behind the initiative, which was promoted by comedian Sarah Silverman, was simple. Public opinion polls consistently showed that Obama was very popular among younger voters, but was treated with some suspicion by a large swath of voters over 65. Hence the move to dispatch Jewish grandchildren to convince the seniors in their family that Obama was the right man for the job.
Joe Biden was Obama’s candidate for vice president, and one of his campaign responsibilities was to assist Obama with older voters. It made sense: At 47, Obama was a relatively young presidential nominee, and he chose Biden – who was 65 at the time – partly to calm concerns among voters about his lack of political experience.
A dozen years on, Biden is now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and the script seems to have flipped.
Recent polls (taken after sexual assualt allegations by Tara Reade against Biden were made public) show that the former vice president is enjoying strong support among voters over 60 – a group that until recently was considered more favorable to his opponent, President Donald Trump. His main challenge, meanwhile, is to ensure high voter turnout and high levels of support among younger voters.
The national trend is also true within the American Jewish community.
“Biden connects very well with voters in that age group,” says Ron Klein, a former Democratic congressman from Florida. “Biden is himself an older man and for many people in that generation, his life experience, what he’s lived through, feels relevant,” Klein tells Haaretz. “That’s true in the broader electorate, and also specifically in the Jewish community. It’s an important advantage for him.”
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Exit polls from the 2016 presidential election showed that a majority of those over 60 voted for Trump, preferring the Republican real estate tycoon over Hillary Clinton. The GOP also won a small majority of the over-65s in the 2018 midterms, albeit by a much smaller margin than in 2016. Until recently, the common political wisdom in the United States was that the 2020 election would also feature a clear age divide, with older voters again preferring Trump.
But several polls published in recent weeks show a different trend and are reportedly raising concerns within the Trump campaign. One poll, conducted by YouGov, showed Biden and Trump tied among voters older than 65. A CNN poll, meanwhile, showed Biden with a 13 point lead among this demographic group, and a poll by ABC and the Washington Post showed an even larger gap in favor of Biden among voters over 65 – 15 points. Any of these would be great for Biden, considering that Trump defeated Clinton by 7 percentage points among these voters in 2016.
The Washington Post also reported this week that several of Trump’s political advisers, including White House senior aide Kellyanne Conway, “have warned his allies against relentlessly mocking the 77-year-old Biden’s mental acuity because the president has already lost ground with senior citizens.”
When it comes to the Jewish community, there is at least one state where older voters are critical for any political campaign: Florida. The state is home to approximately 600,000 Jews, and a big portion of that number are seniors and retirees living in the Sunshine State. Trump won Florida by 1 percentage point in 2016, and retaking the state is key in order for him to get a second term.
“I think there will be great support for Joe Biden in this demographic group here in Florida,” says Joanne Goodwin, who is active with the Democratic Party in the Miami area. “I can tell you as a Jewish voter with grandchildren and even one great-grandchild, I wake up every day thinking: What have I done today to make things better for them? And there are many, many people like myself – and all of them vote.”
For Jewish voters over 60, Goodwin says, “Israel is an important issue – but not the only issue, like Trump seems to think. People know that Biden has a long history of supporting Israel, so they’re not worried about that. But they are worried about the rise of anti-Semitism here in America and how Trump is normalizing it. When he calls the anti-Semitic people in Charlottesville ‘very fine people,’ that matters to Jewish voters in America. We’re paying attention,” she says, referring to Trump’s August 2017 comments following the alt-right march in Virginia.
Klein believes that the coronavirus will also impact the levels of support for Biden among older voters all over America, specifically in Florida. “Older people in America, generally speaking, are scared and frustrated right now,” Klein observes. “They’re more vulnerable to this health crisis. Many people had to celebrate Passover this year away from their families; people are going months without seeing friends, or they are canceling plans to see their grandchildren. This has changed people’s lives.”
Klein says Trump’s handling of the crisis, particularly his consistent efforts in February and March to downplay the outbreak, when he said it would “just go away,” could hurt the president’s standing with older voters. “He’s a salesman and he thought he could sell the American public a false sense of security. But you can’t do that with an epidemic,” Klein adds. “People are seeing through it.”
A rabbi who leads a Conservative congregation in Florida tells Haaretz that Biden’s appeal is indeed strong among seniors in his community. The rabbi, who asked not to be identified, explains: “If Bernie Sanders or someone with his views on Israel were to become the Democratic nominee, I think Florida would be lost for the Democrats – especially when looking at the Jewish community. People in my synagogue who don’t like Trump at all would end up voting for him if it was Trump or Sanders. But with Biden, I think Trump isn’t going to gain a lot of new votes in the Jewish community.”
The rabbi notes that “the thing to remember about older people is that they actually vote. They don’t need to be tempted or energized into doing it, like the kids on college campuses. They show up every time. So if you have a candidate that speaks their language and shares their values, that certainly will help you in Florida.”
The risk for the Democrats, this rabbi says, comes from a group that he defines as “soft Trump supporters” within the Jewish community. “These are people who hate almost everything Trump does in American politics, but are very fond of his Israel policy – of moving the embassy, quitting the Iran deal. This group exists almost only among the older generation. Trump needs to remind them every day between now and the election of what he’s done in Israel. But if the headlines are all about COVID and health care, they’ll probably go with Biden.”
Florida is not the only state where older voters could make the difference. In 2016, Trump won Michigan by just 10,704 votes, a 0.23 percent winning margin. The Democrats enjoyed a very strong midterm election there in 2018, and one of the shifts documented in opinion polls before and after that ballot was a movement of older voters away from Trump and the Republican Party, mostly over issues like health care and social security.
Michigan is home to some 90,000 Jews. While not a very large community, both parties will be looking to increase their share of the Jewish vote this time around, assuming another close result, with a few thousand votes potentially making all the difference.
“I think Joe Biden will do very well with older voters here, including within the Jewish community, because people in my age group can identify with a lot of what he’s lived through and the way he carries himself,” says Prof. Steven Weiland, a past director of the Jewish Studies program at Michigan State University. “He’s exactly my age, and I see him as someone who perhaps can understand better some of my own life experiences.”
Weiland says that some people could perhaps identify with Biden because of “everything he’s been through,” referring to the former vice president’s loss of his first wife and two of his children. “I think people with children and grandchildren look for that life experience, for the sense that this person has dealt with difficult things in life.”
He adds that “people over the age of 60, I can say from experience, we’re also impacted by our kids. And that’s why I actually think it’s also important for Biden to do well with younger voters. They can influence their parents and grandparents if they care about the issues and talk with them about voting.”
For David Mittleman, an attorney involved in Democratic politics in the state, the impact of the coronavirus in Michigan could also help Biden with the over 60s, especially among Jewish voters. “The fact that we had far-right demonstrations here, with swastikas and Confederate flags, and Trump gave them his blessing – people aren’t going to forget that,” he says.
Mittleman is referring to the demonstrations that took place recently in Lansing, the state’s capital, against the lockdown and social distancing measures promoted by the state in order to fight the coronavirus. Several protesters arrived at the State Capitol building with weapons and military gear and threatened the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
The protesters were encouraged by Trump, and Mittleman believes this will hurt him in the local Jewish community. “We still remember the way he responded to the demonstration in Charlottesville in 2017, when he said the people who marched there were very fine people. Now he’s basically doing the same thing over here in Lansing.”
Biden actually mentioned Charlottesville in his first campaign ad, which appeared a year ago and launched his presidential campaign. He spoke about Trump’s reaction to that event as proof of a battle being waged “for the soul of this nation.”
Last week, the Jewish Democratic Council of America released an ad endorsing Biden, which again cited Charlottesville. The ad, however, also included images from the far-right demonstrations in Lansing. “It’s not a coincidence – we see a clear connection between these events,” says the organization’s executive director, Halie Soifer. “It’s once again Trump encouraging and emboldening messages of hatred and extremism.”
Soifer, who grew up in Michigan, tells Haaretz she had heard for years about armed “militias” being active in Michigan, but never imagined a president of the United States giving legitimacy to the use of violence – “especially not in circumstances like this, in the midst of a crisis, when what we really need is responsible leadership.” Her organization plans to continue attacking Trump over his comments, both after the Charlottesville and Lansing protests.
For Trump, however, the objective is not to win anything close to a majority of the Jewish vote. Instead, it’s simply to keep the level of support he had nationally in 2016, when Clinton won 70 percent of the Jewish vote and he won about 25 percent.
The risk for Trump is a move of older Jewish voters toward Biden that would increase his share of the vote from Clinton’s 70 percent to something closer to Obama’s 78 percent in 2008, or the Democrats’ 79 percent in the 2018 midterms.
“I’m convinced Biden can get more than previous nominees in the Jewish community here in Florida,” Goodwin says. “He connects with people. But it will not come without hard work. His campaign needs to use the great Jewish members of Congress we have here, and to work with rabbis and community leaders. If they invest the effort, I think it will pay off and make a difference,” she says.